We’re thrilled to give you an exclusive sneak-peek of OtherEarth, the follow-up to mind-bending YA SF series opener Otherworld. OE publishes on 30th October. Are you ready to play?

 

None of this is happening.

I’m standing in the morgue at the Company’s facility. I should see my own image in the gleaming metal cabinets where they store all the bodies, but I have no reflection. I don’t know if I’m real. There are corpses laid out on the autopsy tables, crisp white sheets pulled up to their chins. On the far side of the room are Brian and West, two guys from my high school who were victims of an accident that the Company orchestrated. In front of me lies Carole, the soccer mom turned fearless warrior who sacrificed her own life to save mine. Blood seeps through the section of sheet that covers her abdomen. That’s where the sword that killed her went in.

She thought I was the one who could save the others. All it takes is a look around the morgue to know Carole was tragically wrong. There are at least a dozen bodies here; most of their faces I don’t recognize from the real world. Who knows how many cadavers are tucked away in the morgue’s metal drawers? The dead here come in all sizes and shapes and colors. But they all died as guinea pigs, their brains tinkered with and their bodies broken. All to beta test the Company’s new virtual reality technology. All to debug a goddamn video game.

The man who started it all is on the table next to Carole’s. Milo Yolkin, the Company’s boyish CEO and the inventor of Otherworld. Now he’s just another shriveled-up corpse. The mind that was hailed as one of the century’s greatest turned out to be no match for its own creation. Otherworld may have given Milo everything he’d been missing, but in the end, the game killed him.

I pass a computer monitor on my way to the door. I can see the room reflected in its screen, and I’m still not there. I glance at the floor behind me—I don’t even cast a shadow. Whatever this is—dream, hallucination or memory—I know only one thing for certain: Kat’s here somewhere, and I have to find her.

I don’t know who needs to be rescued. Maybe it’s her—but it might be me. The panic keeps building. It’s pushing me forward. I rush out of the morgue and into the main part of the
facility, then skid to a stop. Ahead of me is a wall of boxes with hexagonal windows. These are the life-support capsules where the Company stores the people whose minds they’ve imprisoned in Otherworld. It looks like the corporation has expanded its operation since the last time I was here. There must be hundreds of thousands of capsules by now, stacked on top of each other and rising up into the sky.

In the center of the wall is an opening—the entrance to a maze. There’s a middle-aged man lying on the floor in front of it, blood gushing from a bullet wound in his arm. As I close in on him, I notice that his eyes remain open. The man doesn’t see me, but he might not be dead. He works for the Company, though I have no idea what he does. All I know is that his name is Wayne Gibson. He’s Kat’s stepfather. And I was the one who shot him.

I step over Wayne’s body, resisting the urge to give it a kick, and enter the maze. Walls of stacked capsules tower over me on either side. Inside each capsule is a human being. I glance into one as I pass by and recognize the swollen, purple carcass of a guy my age. The car accident the Company arranged for Marlow Holm and his mother must have been brutal. Mrs. Holm’s corpse is probably back at the morgue. Somehow Marlow survived. Now they have his mind trapped in Otherworld. I wonder which of the Holms was the lucky one.

I pick up my pace and try not to look into any more of the capsules. The path in front of me keeps branching in different directions. I don’t know where I’m going, so I stick to the left. After a while, I start to think the maze might be unsolvable. Every new bit looks the same as the last. I’m about to collapse from exhaustion when I turn a corner and find myself at a juncture. The path ahead has split again, but this time there’s a statue blocking the left side. The tall Clay Man has a Bedouin scarf wrapped around his head and a glowing amulet dangling against his chest. One of his arms is raised, with a finger pointing toward the passage on the right.

“It’s you,” I gasp. The Clay Man is Busara Ogubu’s Otherworld avatar. I’m so relieved to find her that I almost forget that she can’t be trusted. Busara was the one who got me into this mess. She risked my life and others for her own selfish reasons. Still, it’s impossible to hate her. If it weren’t for Busara’s scheming, there’s little doubt Kat would already be dead.

“Busara,” I say. If her avatar can hear me, he shows no desire to communicate. Then it dawns on me that the finger may be the only message I need.

I choose the path to the right.

I try not to think morbid thoughts while I run. I try not to imagine what might be happening to Kat. I try not to envision my life without her.

Then, all at once, I find myself at the center of the maze. There’s a wide-open space here, and it’s packed with remarkable beings. Some are giants, others tiny and delicate. A few look almost human, but most can only be described as hideous. No two of them are exactly alike. These are the Children, the creations of Otherworld, the digital offspring of parents whose DNA wasn’t meant to mix. When they first appeared, Milo tried to get rid of them—until he realized the Children were every bit as alive as he was.

Above, thousands of captive humans are looking down from the capsules, their faces pressed up against the glass. I came here to find Kat; now I won’t be able to leave without helping them, too. There are now thousands of people and an entire species depending on Simon Eaton, fuckup extraordinaire, to rescue them.

And yet no one notices that I’m here. They’re all staring at a spot on one of the walls. Somehow I know that whatever is there is what I’ve been looking for. I weave through the crowd, and when I reach the front I see guards standing on either side of one of the capsules. Their faces are blandly handsome, their bodies buff, and both of them are armed to the teeth. They look a lot like the non-player characters in Otherworld.

No one in the crowd dares to challenge them. It’s clear they’ll die if they do. The guards can’t see me, though. If Kat’s in there, this is my chance to save her.

As I walk up to the glass, I pray I’m not too late. It’s not until I’m standing between the two guards that I realize everything is all wrong. The person inside the capsule isn’t Kat. The body doesn’t even belong to a female. Lying on the stainless steel shelf is a tall, pasty kid with a giant nose. I suppose I’m still not used to seeing him with no hair. It takes me a moment to recognize myself.

I spin around to face the Children who are staring straight through me. I see why they’re all here. They came for me. I was supposed to help them. But now that they’ve found me, I’m just a huge disappointment. They’re all going to die. I won’t be saving anyone.

“Why are you so upset?” A man wearing a garish 1960s suit and a brown fedora steps forward. He’s the only one here who can see me. It makes sense, I suppose. I’m the only one who ever sees him. “Don’t tell me you’re surprised,” my dead grandfather snorts. “You always said you weren’t the One.”

I’m about to respond when something whizzes through the air past my ear. I hear an oof and a thud. One of the NPC guards just hit the ground. I’m looking straight at the second guy when an arrow gets him right through the temple.

I catch sight of Kat’s hair in the crowd. Her camouflage bodysuit leaves the rest of her little more than a blur.

“Kat!” I call out to her, but she must not hear me.

She rushes past me to the capsule and yanks open the door. Kat slides out the shelf with my body on top. I stand by and watch as the girl I’ve loved since I was eight years old bends over my motionless body.

“Simon,” she whispers. “Remember who you are.”

I see my body twitch as if it’s coming back to life.

“Simon,” Kat says. “It’s time. Open your eyes.”

I open my eyes. I’m in a hotel room in Texas. Kat is asleep beside me.

 

Pre-order OtherEarth via Amazon, Waterstones, Book Depository or your local bookshop.

 

Tags: , ,

OTHERWORLD is more than just a game; it’s an adventure, a way of life, a glimpse into an all-too-possible near future. Jason Segel and Kirsten Miller have created a world you’ll fall completely into and this got the Rock The Boat team thinking… What other worlds would we want to escape to for an hour or two (with the caveat that we’d be allowed to leave at the end, of course)?

Here we pick the films we feel inspired to watch (or rewatch) and disappear into, either in preparation for the experience of reading OTHERWORLD (or in fact after reaching the end, and needing some further escape from our everyday reality)…


Kirsten Miller (author)

Ready Player One: Virtual reality brought to the big screen by Steven Spielberg? Count me in. I loved the book, and can’t wait to see what Spielberg does with Wade’s trailer park.

Ready Player One Movie

 

Jason Segel (author)

Time to rewatch The Matrix. You may be too young to remember when The Matrix first came out in theaters but take it from me, The Matrix changed everything. The ultimate dystopian virtual reality tale.

The Matrix Movie

 

Shadi (Commissioning Editor)

OTHERWORLD really reminded me of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, and I’d love to pull an all-nighter and watch the trilogy in one sitting! Just like the ring, the realms test the gamers’ lower selves and basic instincts – namely power, greed and wrath! I found it so interesting that Simon and his gang need to overcome these desires in order to beat the game, rescue their friends and, ultimately, survive – much like Frodo Baggins and his unlikely crew of heroes.

Lord of the Rings Movie

 

Harriet (Senior Editor) 

After watching Inception I couldn’t stop thinking about it. The 2010 science fiction film features Leonardo DiCaprio as a professional thief who steals information by infiltrating the subconscious. The idea of people acting consciously in a dream world struck me as both fascinating and horrifying. I had exactly the same feeling when reading OTHERWORLD, of reality bending and distorting in a terrifying way. In OTHERWORLD, gamers are provided with a chance to play out fantasy lives in a new realm. In a world with no consequences, what would you do?

Inception Movie

 

Kate (Senior Publicist)

I will never forget going to see The Matrix when it was first released, so have to pick that. It was a real game-changer. To imagine what could happen when the worlds of real and virtual reality collide seemed so far away then. Reading OTHERWORLD it was amazing (not to mention a bit worrying) to reflect on how rapidly technology has developed in such a short space of time. Thankfully we have not got to the stage where we are leaping in and out of different realms and getting stuck in virtual worlds, though I fear it might be closer than we think.

The-Matrix

 

Mark (Marketing Guru)

Personally I am inspired to watch the original 1972 version of Solaris, a Russian film directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, based on the novel by Polish writer Stanislaw Lem. It’s such a strange movie and the first art house/sci fi movie I had ever seen, and created such a strange and bizarre image of life in space.

Solaris

 

Nina (YA Publicist)

I am inspired to watch the new Ready Player One film after reading OTHERWORLD. The idea of an imminent future where the sentiency of AI has reached outwards and far beyond the scope of what we see today – and that has changed our world almost beyond recognition – feels like a timely thing to be reminded of right now. (Have you seen the news that AI robots began talking to each other in a new language they made up themselves?!)

 

Discover more conversation around OTHERWORLD (including our review and extract tour)  on the #visitOtherworld tag across social media.

 

Tags: ,

28-30 July 2017

The Young Adult Literary Convention (or YALC) is a massive annual celebration of the best young adult books from around the world. Thousands of book lovers and authors descend on the London Film and Comic Con and we were absolutely thrilled to be there again this year. It was a chance to meet big authors like Rhian Ivory and Philip Womack. We even spotted actors Benedict Cumberbatch and Matt Lucas wandering around…

So many book fans!
So many book fans!

 

It was a whirlwind few days, with three of our fabulous authors – Olivia Levez (The Island, The Circus), Nikki Sheehan (Swan Boy, Goodnight Boy) and Sarah Mussi (Room Empty) – hosting workshops and participating in panel discussions before signing copies of their books. Meeting the people who love your books is such an exciting part of the writing and publishing process.

Some of Rock the Boat's beautiful covers on display
Some of Rock the Boat’s beautiful covers on display

 

This year was particularly exciting for us as we revealed shiny, early reading copies of our big new title for autumn, Otherworld by writer and actor Jason Segel and author Kirsten Miller. This is the first in a fast-paced sci-fi and gaming trilogy that we are obsessing over here at Rock the Boat. The story centres around 18-year-old Simon, who has always used gaming as a way to escape his tedious life. When a top-of-the-range virtual reality game called Otherworld launches to a select few gamers, he can’t wait to get his hands on a headset. But behind the incredible graphics lurks a very real danger.  And soon Simon finds himself battling through wondrous and terrifying realms to save his only friend Kat. At its heart, this engaging thriller asks the question we’ll all soon be asking: if technology can deliver everything we want, how much are we willing to pay?

Our lovely shiny Otherworld advance proofs
Our shiny advance proofs!

 

Otherworld isn’t out until 31 October 2017, but some lucky YALC-goers managed to get their hands on the limited edition, dazzling proofs. We held daily raffles and book blogger giveaways via twitter throughout . It was great to see the buzz generated both at YALC and online. Even Jason Segel was getting in on the action, liking and re-tweeting posts by the raffle winners and bloggers who took to social media to voice their enthusiasm!

Lucky winners
A few lucky winners of Otherworld proofs

 

The response has been amazing, with some incredible reviews from YALC bloggers already online. Blogger Queen of Geekdom wrote: ‘I came to the novel hoping to have it compete for my love of Ready Player One. What I got was so much more… This is a book that has been missing from my reading life for a long time.’ The Tween Book Blog has said ‘I was literally reading it everywhere, on the bus, at the playground, whilst I was walking and in shops… you couldn’t put it down.’ We love that they enjoyed it as much as we do, and can’t wait for more fo you to experience this brilliant new world Jason and Kirsten have created!

Even Superman and Batgirl got their hands on a proof...
Even Superman and Batgirl got their hands on a proof…

 

It is always such a treat going to YALC, engaging with you, the readers, and seeing your excitement and support for our lovely and talented authors. The convention really pulses with high spirits throughout the weekend.  YALC is a great reminder of why we do what we do and a fantastic opportunity to connect with fellow book lovers.

We spoke to one fan in particular who had sat down and read the entirety of AJ Steiger’s gripping Mindwalker in one sitting at the convention last year! That is real dedication…

Until next year YALC, it was a pleasure.

Writing a second book is hard. Really hard. The first one is written for yourself, with the freedom to explore, to be creative, to find your own style, to dip in and out of different writing methods, to lose yourself in words. That feeling of being in the zone, utterly at one with your writing and your passion. No one’s looking over your shoulder, not really.

Then comes the second, and the deadline looms just as you’re in mid publication frenzy for your first ever published book. This time it’s different: as well as writing the thing, you have your daily life to maintain, complete with job, (in my case lesson planning, teaching, exam marking), and family commitments and all of the tiny things that make up your daily existence. Eating. Food. That sort of thing. But this time, there’s another set of pressures, because now you have to learn how to be a self-promotion guru, a whizz at keeping up with the white noise and nuances of social media; an organiser of events, school visits, trips to London, split train tickets, best Premier Inn offers; an arranger of school assemblies, book tours, book sales.

And somehow, in the midst of all of this, you have to try to find the time and head space to write another book. You have to keep your head clear as reviews come in, news of others’ successes, triumphs, fellow authors who all seem to be doing bigger and better things than you. You have to not cringe as you post yet another promo author post on Facebook, wondering whether your friends are truly sick of the sight of you and your damned book yet.

It’s hard. And scary.

I hit the wall three times at 30,000 words with The Circus and each time had to start from scratch. I started to sweat as my word-count crept up to the 27,000 mark, wondering when that truly awful blankness and book hatred would strike. And it did. Every time. By far my best circus act with this one was Hitting The Wall: a death defying feat of pure unperformance and inaction.

Slam. Three times.

What should I do? My deadline was scarily close, and all I really had to show for it was a girl named Willow and a few nicely described circus scenes. What did she want? I wasn’t sure. Why was she running away? I didn’t really know. Where was she actually running to? Nope. Didn’t know that one either.

I did have her voice though. I knew she had a story to tell, if I could only access it and stop panicking. In the end I took a deep breath and sent my agent, Clare Wallace, an email with the header: HELP!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

She phoned me straight away and listened calmly as I hiccupped my way through all of my worries and frets. Within the hour she had got my deadline extended, offered practical help with my upcoming launch and reassured me that she got this a lot from debut authors and I wasn’t alone. Immediately the huge burden had lifted and I was able to focus on enjoying the publication of The Island.

Clare gave me permission not to write anything at all for a few weeks. And paradoxically, because I wasn’t supposed to be writing, the ideas came flooding in. I grabbed the dog, took myself off to my caravan and sat outside the pub with a pint of SA, staring over unspeakably beautiful Cardigan Bay, daydreaming.

And that’s when it came to me. Willow needed a friend. Of course she did. She needed someone to complement her spoilt selfishness and lighten up the darker moments of her experience of being on the streets. I thought about my favourite film, The Midnight Cowboy, the poignant tale of a naïve country boy seeking his fortune in New York City, starring Jon Voight as Joe Buck and Dustin Hoffman as his trickster friend, Ratso. That was it:

Willow Stephens needed her Ratso.

So Suz was born, Willow’s companion through all of her adventures. She was already present in my story, although I hadn’t realised it. In an early scene I had a brief description of a homeless girl feeding ham to the pigeons in Charing Cross, and this girl grew to become Suz, Willow’s friend and circus manager.

Next, how to fix the setting? Originally, The Circus was set in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, an evocative town which manages to be seedy, magical, squalid and glamorous all at the same time. I’d visited Plovdiv the previous autumn as part of my research and watched children throwing each other up into the air on trampolines outside its Cirque Balkanique. Miniature ponies pulled at trampled grass in the circus grounds – a carpark outside Lidl. I sat in our hire car, scribbling notes and watching. I loved the juxtaposition between the tawdry and the surreal. Those descriptions made their way straight into my circus adventure, but I kept drawing to a halt every time I tried to get Willow there. How to get a runaway to Bulgaria? I didn’t have enough technical information, hadn’t had time to travel by train to follow her possible journey.

Plovdiv Circus
Plovdiv Circus

 

I tried setting it in Paris, made her a stowaway in a coach (that was the second draft that grinded to a half at 30,000 words). No good. Panic.

Then I visited my brother in Hastings. Immediately I stepped off the train I knew I had found my setting. Hastings has it all: edge, street performers, a creative vibe, down-at-heel bits, upmarket bits, tattiness, an ineffably lovely seafront and plenty of weird and wonderful places for Willow to stay as she attempted to find the circus and herself.

Suz. Hastings. These were the missing ingredients. The rest was a whizz to write, a breeze after all of the juggling acts, the tightrope walk, the knife edge.

Ultimately, there was the final performance: an amazing book launch at my school, complete with talented student and staff performers!

What have I learnt about writing book two? What I’ve always known, what all writers know in their hearts. You’ll get there. Just keep doing what you’re doing, one wobbling step at a time.

The show must go on.

Gifford's Circus
Gifford’s Circus

 

Olivia slack lining at Lakefest!
Olivia slack lining at Lakefest!

Right from the beginning of City of Saints & Thieves, I was taken with Tina: stealthy, smart, courageous and determined. We need more characters like her. How did you go about creating her?

I knew I wanted to set the book in modern, urban Africa, someplace like Nairobi, Kenya (where I lived for three years). I started with the idea of a Robin Hood type character – if Robin Hood was an orphaned teenage refugee girl in Africa. And then I thought, to survive alone in a place like Nairobi (or Sangui City, as it turned out) you’d have to be really tough, savvy, and street wise. Tina’s character developed from there – what would make her like that? What would have had to happen to her to toughen her up? How would she have survived? And under all that, what would her hidden weaknesses be? Her back-story all evolved from figuring out the answers to these questions. And that history helped shape her character traits and strengths and flaws.

 

You have spent some working for NGOs in Africa. Can you speak about your experiences and how it helped shape this book?

For about three years I was based in Kenya, but spent most of my time travelling around Africa for work. My job was to interview refugees who were under consideration for resettlement to countries like the US. Basically, I listened to their stories and made legal arguments for why they should be considered refugees. I would start interviews by telling people, “I need you to tell me about all the bad things that have happened to you that made you have to leave your country, starting at the beginning.” (I kept it light and fun like that. J) It was fascinating work, but as you might imagine, it could be mentally and physically draining. I calculated at some point and estimate that I probably listened to around 4,000 stories. So a lot of the refugee-related parts of the book come from there – no one story in particular, but the basic bones of what might cause someone to flee Eastern Congo, and what it might be like to live as a refugee.

 

What do you think most people would be surprised to learn about life in modern day Africa?

So much! That it’s not all wild animals and child-like people in tribal dress. Or on the other hand, that it’s not all famine and corruption and wars. I know the most about Nairobi, where I lived, and the thing is, there are so many cool things happening in IT and entrepreneurship and social justice and art. Lots of it way beyond what’s happening in the West. I mean, yes, there are animals and very strong cultural identities, and conflict as well, but you can also find all the latest gadgets; and extremely passionate social justice warriors; and smart, creative ways of getting around things like not having a reliable power grid or municipal infrastructure (solar-powered communal toilets that make fertilizer, for example).

The cities tend to be very young, with a lot of people coming from the rural areas for work or school, so there’s all this energy and vitality. I think Westerners like to think of “Africa” as this monolithic place stuck in time, and yes, there are places where people continue to live like they have for centuries, but Africa is huge, and incredibly diverse. And it’s not like people aren’t connected to the modern world. Often you see that people take the useful bits of modern life and adapt them to their current situations. In Kenya at least, everyone has a cell phone. Doesn’t matter how far out you live, whether you herd goats for a living, you’ve got one. Even if the only way to charge it is to pay the guy at the one-room kiosk in the middle of pasture land who has a solar panel a few cents. Like many places in the world, it’s both very global and very local at the same time.

 

There’s a line in the book that particularly struck me. It’s when Mr Greyhill, an American businessman now living in Sangui City, Kenya, says to Tina, a Congolese refugee: ‘It’s funny. We hardly ever get to choose where our souls find their homes.’ Can you talk about what he means there?

I think that people are often surprised to find themselves attached to a place they weren’t intending on loving, or even liking. Mr. Greyhill didn’t go to East Africa because he liked the scenery; he went there to make money off it. But Sangui City and the region got under his skin and he found himself more comfortable there than back in the US. I think it’s one of those things that can happen with anyone who reluctantly moves into an entirely different culture. You hear about the same thing from the opposite perspective. Immigrants who come to the UK or the US don’t necessarily want to be there – “home” is where they came from; moving away is a way to make money – but over time it becomes more and more difficult to go back and feel comfortable as well. Mr. Greyhill is one of the lucky ones who realizes that he really does feel more at home in Sangui, and that he loves it and may never leave, even if he’s one of the “bad guys” who are taking advantage of the region and profiting off of it at the expense of the locals. He justifies his work, saying that if it wasn’t him doing it, it would be someone worse. It’s a rather colonialist mentality, extremely flawed, but you feel a twinge of sympathy for him, which is pretty much exactly who Mr. Greyhill is.

 

After the murder of Tina’s mother, Tina needed to look after her younger sister and take care of herself. She also fled the Congo with her mother at a young age because of how dangerous their life became. Despite this very difficult life, Tina has a good head on her shoulders and a strong moral compass. How have her circumstances shaped who she is?

Even though Tina lost her mother at a very young age, she still looks back to her as a sort of moral guide. She’s constantly thinking back to when her mother was alive, using what she said and did to help Tina make her “rules” for survival. This looking back, in a way, counterbalances everything Tina’s learning with the Goonda gang. At the same time, dwelling so much on the past leads to Tina’s obsession with getting revenge. Which then again, has to be tempered by her very here-and-now need to take care of her sister. (People are complicated, right?) A big part of the story, though, is that very Young-Adultish theme of figuring out who you are – understanding where you came from, what part of you is like your parents and what part is all you. She’s learning throughout the story who she is and who she wants to be.

 

Finally, what do you hope readers will take away from City of Saints & Thieves?

First and foremost, I hope they’re entertained! We love stories because they suck us in and keep us wanting to know more. We want to know what happens, and at the end of the day, I really believe in the power of being swept away in a story. And telling a compelling story is hard! For me to really love something, there has to be that element of mystery and suspense that keeps you turning pages. So I hope I’ve accomplished at least that. And then, of course, I hope that those people who weren’t familiar with this world and these subjects come away having seen something new, something interesting, a story they wouldn’t have otherwise known. And I would hope that they’re glad to now know it. Especially when it comes to global social justice and politics these days, understanding people and cultures and situations that don’t reflect just our own (Western) perspective is so crucial. And I would hope that they would see refugees as not just faceless masses, victims of violence and war, but as real individual people with so many more facets and identities. Tina wouldn’t call herself a refugee first; she’d call herself a thief, a sister, a daughter.  That’s who she’d want to be seen as, just like anyone else.

1. Can you share the inspiration behind Room Empty? What compelled you to put Dani’s story to paper?

Room Empty came to me whilst listening to a self-development video on You Tube – I love self-help! I regularly listen to life coaches on YouTube and one session in particular inspired me. The coach focused on looking at what was in our ROOM. Everyone has a room, it’s the internal space where we keep emotional secrets hidden. It was such an arresting and visual image, I could not resist having a quick look at what was in mine. There are many skeletons in the cupboards of my family – mental illness, addiction, pain and death have all played walk-on parts – so it did not take me long to realise it was packed pretty full, and how difficult it is to detach oneself from such a place. It was from there that I started to think about everyone else’s rooms, specifically Dani, the protagonist in Room Empty.  What was locked behind her door, and could she escape from it in order to be happy?

2. Room Empty deals with drug addiction, anorexia , rehabilitation and traumas. Mental health is currently a big topic in the UK and readers are calling for books dealing with these issues head on. Why do you think it’s so important that young adult literature talk about this?

As in so many areas of human development, literature and stories often lead the way. A well-told, moving narrative can get inside the human condition, showcasing inner truths about what it is to be human. In ROOM EMPTY, I invite readers to meet characters who are struggling with addiction and mental health, confronting their inner truths at full speed. Similarly, I think it is no exaggeration to say that for centuries we as a society have treated those with mental ill health in a shameful and barbaric way. There is so much more that can be done to get people the kind of help they need without feeling ashamed. If ROOM EMPTY gives just one reader a glimpse into the life of someone struggling with mental illness and helps opens their heart up a little, then it will have done well.

3. What do you hope readers will get out of Room Empty?

Apart from a story that grips and moves and makes the reader think, I hope readers will stop and examine themselves, their belief systems and decide to question reality a little more vigorously. I hope readers will identify with Dani  and come to understand that however bright and shiny any family looks to an outsider, inside nearly all are people struggling, dealing and coping. Ultimately I hope the reader will feel they are not alone; you can find hope and love even in the darkest and scariest of empty rooms.

Meet Helen Donohoe, the author of Birdy Flynn, out now!

  1. When I was young, we didn’t really have books in the house so I didn’t start reading novels until I was in my twenties.
  2. The first four books I did buy were from Jumble sales and they were The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Pippi Longstocking, Every Girl’s Judo and The Young Angler’s Guide.
  3. I managed to land a Saturday job working at the local library – it was a major turning point in my life.
  4. I tried to be in denial about puberty, just like Birdy Flynn, and dreaded my childhood being over.
  5. I worked in the same office as Adele’s mum at the same time that Adele was just emerging. I felt like she had a uniquely passionate way of telling a story in her songs and it made me want to do the same with words. I found the way that she worked really inspiring.

 

Helen studied politics at Manchester University and the LSE and has dedicated her career to speaking up for the powerless and invisible as a campaigner, lobbyist, volunteer and writer. She recently completed the MA in Creative Writing (Novels) at City University, London, winning the PFD Novel Writing Prize for Birdy Flynn, her first novel. She lives in London.

Did you know that 92% of chart songs talk about sex? I didn’t until I read Girls & Sex by journalist Peggy Orenstein (out in October). If you look at today’s panicked headlines, it might sound like we have an epidemic on our hands: ‘casual hook-up culture invades universities’ and ‘primary school boys watching porn’. It’s little wonder we all think everyone else is at it! Refusing to buy into all the scare-mongering, Peggy decided to reach out to girls at high school and university and ask them the questions very few parents dare to ask. The results are both fascinating and frightening.

What she discovered was a large gap between perception and reality. Young people overestimate the amount of bed-hopping that actually goes on among their peers. They are not, in fact, having more sex now than in previous generations. What has changed, though, is that relationships are more likely to begin with physical intimacy than with a date. What, so no blushing over a coffee, or touching hands as you both simultaneously dive into the same bag of cinema popcorn, or grabbing a bite to eat that may or may not end with an awkward kiss goodnight? But that’s the best bit!

I’m not the only one who thinks that: Peggy cites one university survey in which 70% believed their fellow students only wanted casual hook-ups. But in reality, nearly 75% of boys and 80% of girls said they’d prefer a date to a hook-up. And nearly 80% of students said they would like to be in a loving relationship. These findings are borne out in Dana Reinhardt’s brilliant Tell Us Something True, when 17-year-old River falls apart after his girlfriend Penny decides to dump him. Until, that is, he finds someone else to be the object of his affection, the damaged but loveable Daphne, even lying about having an addiction just so he can see her at group therapy sessions. Aaah.

Peggy’s findings warmed my heart. Love isn’t dead! Most young people today crave it just as much as they always have. So where has this outwardly casual attitude towards sex come from? One answer suggested in Girls & Sex is porn. It’s an industry that has had serious consequences in terms of the way young people interact – and view themselves. Especially girls. So many of them share stories about how hard it is to get male attention and affection, while also avoiding conflict or being labelled. As one girl said: “every girl’s goal is to be just slutty enough, where you’re not a prude, but you’re not a whore”. What a complicated balancing act; I bet hardly anyone succeeds. What success in relationships might actually look like is another issue raised in the book – the popular baseball metaphor of reaching first base, second base, third and fourth makes physical intimacy sound like a game – one with opposing teams, winners and losers.

So who are the losers here? The young women in Girls & Sex are mostly strong and confident, but when it comes to relationships, it often goes out of the window. They feel such pressure to act in a certain way; a way that puts a man’s needs and desires before their own.

The struggle is real in Kathleen Glasgow’s Girl in Pieces (out in October), the heart-breaking story of Charlie, a teenage girl battling with her identity after suffering sexual abuse in the past. But as she pieces herself back together, her story offers hope to anyone who feels lost amidst all the expectations and pressures, and provides the building blocks to become strong and empowered women. Just like Kady, the gutsy, fearless and crazily smart heroine in Jay Kristoff and Amie Kaufman’s trilogy The Iluminae Files (the second book, Gemina, is out in October). Don’t we all wish that for ourselves and for our daughters?

Decades of progress in gender equality have been made in the workplace and in politics. Now it needs to be recognised behind closed doors and underneath the bed covers too. This is what Peggy hopes to do with her book; by starting a conversation between parents and their sons and daughters, and among young people themselves, she hopes the world will wake up and take notice, and not let the internet and chart hits decide our relationships for us. Because, as Peggy warns, ‘as long as adults still avoid open discussion of sexuality, teens will inevitably seek information on today’s electronic street corner’.

Fortunately, books can be a great source of inspiration to encourage us not to follow the digital herd.

girls-sex_peggy-orenstein

PlagueDogs_PB.indd
A Review of “Plague Dogs” by Richard Adams

I don’t really know what I was expecting from a Richard Adams book. Adams’s reputation for gory gut wrenches featuring four legged protagonists is inescapable. In an alternate universe, this might even be a review of Adams’s similar story, Watership Down. There are clear parallels between the two novels: both feature animal protagonists; both are very dark; and one of the main characters from Plague Dogs, Snitter, shares similar brain damage symptoms to the character, Fiver, from Watership Down.

A novel being narrated from the point of view of an animal is nothing new; however, I initially found it jarring to read a novel told from the point of view of two dogs.  Suffice to say, I got over this hang-up sooner than expected and, in fact, grew to like it. There’s a line towards the beginning of the novel in which one of the two canine protagonists talks about a “Whitecoat making the gesture to create light”. Obviously, this is a person in a white lab coat using their hand to turn on a light switch, but from a dog’s point of view, magic is being performed. Adams’s treatment of moments such as this is touching without being cliched or cutesy. Crucially, it provided the reassurance I had hoped for that my time would be well spent and no doubt about it, he’s an expert storyteller who writes with skill and style, and his chosen point of view – the two dogs –  appeared pretty quickly for what it is: a master stroke.

I’m not a particularly sentimental person but even I grew to care about and root for the book’s canine heroes, Rowf & Snitter. These are two dogs used for – frankly – inhumane experiments, and  who make a miraculous escape in an attempt to  hide from those who would seek to return them to captivity. Along the way they are helped by Tod, a fox with a thick Scottish accent (how cool is that!) and they encounter a naturalist, Sir Peter Markham Scott, who helps the justifiably jaded Rowf to understand that not all humans are bad.

But this is no mushy sentimental  book – by any stretch of the imagination. Those familiar with Adams’s work will understand that it is bleak and painful and tragic:  an emotional  runaway train ride. Brace yourself for an ending which is nothing short of shocking.  But that’s a good thing because it  reveals Adams’s supreme skill in reaching us to the point that we truly care  about these characters. Although I shed  no tears,  I have spoken to people who have said that they were physically unable to read the ending, and others who did  said that they could never read the book again.

Part of the reason everything hits so hard in Plague Dogs is because the world  we are invited to inhabit feels so real. Not an easy feat when the main characters are talking dogs. Adams’s writing style is graceful yet packs a mighty punch; it’s dark but somehow dazzles.

If I can’t give Plague Dogs a resounding ovation, it is simply because it’s not the genre of book I normally go for. That said, I know a good book when I read one.

Go buy it.

 

It’s wonderful to be in schools with my author hat on, after over twenty years being an English teacher. I get to do what I like, how I like, and talk about my own book instead of other people’s.

Since my book The Island was launched on World Book Day, I’ve been experimenting with different ideas for creative writing workshops, assemblies and author talks.

Ideas range from inkwasters about being a castaway, imagining how different random objects could be used in a survival situation, and how to write like a movie-maker: exploring structural editing devices such as cutaways and match cuts to transition between scenes.

At one school, I was asked to do an exam prep workshop to ninety year eleven students, who were preparing for their IGCSE and needed a booster class on descriptive and narrative writing. After pitching my castaway book, and explaining research and how I method wrote the castaway scenes, I played them the sound of the sea, and showed them a slide of a desert island shoreline. ‘You have been adrift on an inflatable liferaft for two days now,’ I informed them. ‘How do you feel? Are you sunblistered? Is your throat parched? This is the first time you seen land.’ I watch them busy scribbling as they try to build ‘voice’…

Students at Christopher Whitehead Language College scribble away
Students at Christopher Whitehead Language College scribble away

 

I also give talks in assemblies. Before I was published, I was terrified of the thought of public speaking, so deliberately followed the principle of ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’ by volunteering to give assemblies at school for World Book Day and Write For Real, my writers’ group. The first one I did, I was so scared, I had to get the school librarian and a bunch of sixth formers to stand up there with me!

Olivia speaking at Christopher Whitehead Language College
Olivia speaking at Christopher Whitehead Language College

 

But gradually, speaking to a large group of people began to feel ‘normal’, and I realised that it’s actually no different from talking to a class of thirty, which I’ve been doing forever. Now I’m an old pro. The only hairy moment is two minutes before the students start streaming in, and you realise that the projector/Powerpoint/pendrive isn’t working properly and there’s the ICT bloke scratching his head and doing unfathomable things to the laptop…

I love doing author visits. As a teacher, this is all of the best bits: not a learning objective or an exam target grade in sight. Instead, you get to share your passion for creative writing and hopefully inspire writers of the future.

South Brom_jpg-large
Olivia signs books at South Bromsgrove High School
Tags: , , ,